Tore Nielsen, Neal Stidham and Brian Wille did me the great honour of playing Black Dog Dérive over Hangouts last night. Tremendous fun.

Ville Vuorela’s game STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game is available here.



Alien: Covenant

We know what will happen the moment we hear about the “next generation” human embryos aboard the colony ship: a xenomorph will impregnate them. Here though, the marriage of the fine-honed excitement of the Monster-slaying story arcs of ancient Mythology to the richness of existential inferences from the initial run of films – that Evolution occurs along a little-understood plane of immanence, that Life on Other Worlds is likely to be at least as terrifying as life on this, that Aliens allegorize aspects of organic behaviour not yet fully-explained by Scientists, that the xenomorph represents something about species’ will to survive, much, indeed, as did the alien Shapeshifter from John Carpenter‘s remake of The Thing (1982), that there is, in short, something real and meaningful going on – is exchanged for a blood-spattered retelling of the European occupation of North America as the Colonization of Other Worlds:

Alien: Covenant

Αρχαία Θήρα

The region was created by major earthquakes, destroyed by the same propensity to seismic activity and its ancient civilisation – the same on which Plato may (or may not) have based the Atlantean descriptions in the dialogues of Timaeus and Critias – later exposed by the volcanism of the industrial age.

The seafront also reveals a familiar story: sixteen-hour working days. Guys piss in a bottle; girls run down to a public convenience at the risk of losing business. There’s no work in Athens.

Successful businesses – usually orchestrated by a matriarch around a grandfather and extended family – work flat-out for six months and then go away on holiday for the remaining six months of the year, during which almost the entire island is shut, including its supermarkets.

I’m not as down on capitalism as some – it creates surplus, and there are plenty of people in the world who could put the excess to good use – but I’m also of the more-or-less Marxist view that the values that underpin capitalism prevent the proper use of surplus. Every time something drastic happened to the community of the Cyclades, redevelopment occurred from the ground up: a common appetite for metallurgy informed its inception; buildings and cities were rebuilt by their inhabitants, or from donations from their military garrison by neighbours and relatives. Commerce was guided by mutual need.


We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape onto John’s ‘far side of the moon’, into Hudson’s ‘new country’, into Berry’s ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. I have for some time been imagining such transitions as ‘border crossings’. These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them. Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and outlines. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries.

What might we call such incidents and instances – or, rather, how to describe the lands that are found beyond these frontiers? ‘Xenotopias’, perhaps, meaning ‘foreign places’ or ‘out-of-place places’, a term to compliment our ‘utopias’ and ‘dystopias’. Martin Martin, the traveller and writer who in the 1690s set sail to explore the Scottish coastline, knew that one does not need to displace oneself vastly in space in order to find difference. ‘It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of their distance from the place we are born,’ he wrote in 1697, ‘thus men have travelled far enough in the search of foreign plants and animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural climate.’ So did Roger Deakin: ‘Why would anyone want to go to live abroad when they can live in several countries at once just by being in England?’ he wondered in his journal. Likewise, Henry David Thoreau: ‘An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.’

The American artist William Fox has spent his career exploring what he calls ‘cognitive dissonance in isotropic spaces’, which might be more plainly translated as ‘how we easily get lost in spaces that appear much the same in all directions’. Fox’s thesis is that we are unable to orient ourselves in such landscapes because we evolved in the close-hand environments of jungle and savannah. In repetitive, data-depleted landscapes with few sight-markers, ‘our natural navigational abilities begin to fail catastrophically’. Fox had travelled to Antarctica, to the American deserts and to the volcanic calderas in the Pacific to explore such monotone spaces – but David and I had stumbled into one a few hundred years off the Essex coast.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

Robert Macfarlane

Sensory Deprivation

“A typical setup might be a tank of lukewarm water in which the suitably garbed subject floats, supplied with air but cut off from such normal senses of Perception as sight, hearing and touch.”

A new entry from David Langford at the SFE on Sensory Deprivation:-



200 logo

There are three wonderful winners of this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge:

  • Mechanical Oryx by Grant Howitt
  • Memories by Santiago Eximeno
  • Route Clearance by Andrew Millar

Here are the winners and the finalists:

200 Word RPG Winners

I was a judge this year. I ignored things like word-counts or questions like “Is this really an RPG?” These might have disqualified an entry and I’m not here to impose rules and regulations. I tend to prefer games that marry their gameplay and their theme most effectively: those that can do so in 200 words or fewer earn my respect and appreciation. My favourite of the entries I read in 2016 were Meetings by Jaye Foster, The Vampire’s Kiss by Joanna Piancastelli and The Pope is a Space Lizard by Tobias Strauss.

I selected twenty games I considered possibilities to progress before printing these out and leaving them to sit for a few days; I found that six or seven of the games remained in my memory. Selecting four from these was difficult.

These are the twenty games I considered possibilities to progress from the 174 entries I read in the first round:


This is a well-written and well-conceived game. Playful invective and moral force are combined to convincing effect.

I particularly admire the way in which a beautifully-judged three-act structure communicates the breadth and depth of the game’s theme. This is delivered with clarity and emotional impact.

The fourth and fifth sentences offer up the “insecure” emotional space of the TROLL while allowing the player to distance herself from what she is putting across. The ALL IN CAPS second act accurately depicts the lurid “active-defensive” (as opposed to “passive-aggressive”) dominant feature of Trolldom, while the third act ties-off the angry insecurity of the TROLLS raised in the first act – “write down three physical aspects about which you are insecure… DO NOT draw on your own insecurities” – with a conclusive switch between the shared imagined space of the game – “by the name of [winner’s handle]” – with the real world of those playing: “agree never to speak or write as you have done”.


I like the violence of this one. There can’t be many of us left who believe the old “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” adage.

I also like the cadence of the game: its shape suggests its theme – a common undercurrent in the 200 Word RPGs I admired – by communicating the attributes of a human relationship inside a dramatic moment.

“You must suffer pain or do something to impact the relationship” feels truthful to me, and more than a little tender, like a bruise or a moment of regret; it reveals that the desire to be in the right is in fact the desire to be liked in disguise. I consider this to be an accurate assessment of human nature.

To Alex!

You could play this in the bar, on the train or on a quite Sunday morning, hungover and full of regret. It catches the full extent of a sorrow while retaining a playful and inclusive air; I like the combination of its 6-6-6 structure and its conversational informality. The prompts are good too.

The Town of M

I’m a bit of a sucker for inventive ways to use everyday objects in games & I’d never encountered using sweets as RPG mechanics. I suspect that it might become difficult to “resolve” things without considerable discussion in the middle of the game but that wouldn’t necessarily stop it from being fun. As someone with a pretentious bent, I also read a coded message about corporate responsibility into the fabric of the game.

The Great Work

I’m also a bit of a sucker for Tarot and I think this would be fun, not least because of the ritual of drawing a card in front of the other players and their waiting to hear what the player said about her great work. I’d have preferred to have seen each player interacting with one another’s great works rather than merely describing their own progress during the third act but this is the sort of game I’d probably play more than once, just for the joy of describing the transformation.

One-Night Stand

This may be the perfect subject for a 200 Word RPG: intensity, sex and dramatic misunderstanding, all turned up to eleven in the space of two hundred words.

I love how it includes the truths and delusions of sex and how playful it is about how either truth or delusion might improve the experience or make it worse. The anxiety and expectation of the moment are present too and the game does a good job of communicating how those emotions might transmute into either disappointment or ecstasy. Or both.

There were a few games in my tranche of entries about the pervasive humiliation of the workplace and the following two were the best of those I read:

An American Workplace

It would be easy to write this off as a rewrite of The Office but I think it successfully communicates some of the agony and the necessity of being at work and of the dishonourable conduct it encourages in both bosses and workers. The mechanics are appropriate to the theme but I feel they could have interacted with one another more fruitfully.

Office Party

This accurately represents my experiences in journalism. I also like that it goes straight for the jugular and pulls no punches about the heavy-lidded competition and insecurity of the corporate structure but I think a little dramatic opposition or variation might have improved the play experience: you sort of get what you’re expecting from off.

There were also a few games among my entries with investigative themes and the following two were most interesting of those I read:

My Alibi

This is the kind of theme that relays itself to almost any audience and can be played in almost any context; the UK Freeform scene does this stuff well and I hope purists won’t be too distressed if I remark that I like that it is both a parlour game and an RPG. The mechanics are well-chosen but their descriptions need sharpening up, both in terms of what happens when and to what purpose.

And then there were none

A well-trodden trope once again, but that’s as much a strength as a weakness: the process is clear but the mechanics get a little fuzzier the longer the game goes on and they put the onus on those playing to provide relevant details rather than providing means of revelation. Almost anyone could play this and relish the details of description, I think.

Measured in Cups

Was there another tea-making-and-drinking game out there? A Google search isn’t turning anything up. It’s a great focus for a two-person RPG, particularly one about considering the range of a human friendship. I like the way this draws out the ritual and forces those playing to consider what they’re doing in terms of what they’re saying and vice versa. I’m not sure about “decide together what caused your relationship to fade”. People often have very different ideas about what ended a friendship, particularly after the fact.

Lawsuits & Litigators

This is a game that states its job and does its job with admirable efficiency. You really could drop it into any PBTA game – and perhaps other games too – and watch it create (a) dramatic display and (b) dramatic resolution. The fact that I know I’d hate playing it means that it’s a good game not a bad one.

Jersey Gore: a game for 4 to 6 players

This does a good job of communicating both the sullen and inconsequential narcissism of reality television and some of the reason why people enjoy it so: it is animal behaviour commodified. I might hate it but I’d probably play it anyway because it’s witty and theatrical.

He say you Blade Runner

This is one of the more complete entries I read: I think it really can claim to be a complete game, despite referring to a well-known intellectual property and being part of a bigger whole. It occurs all on one plane of understanding and I’d have like to have seen some examination of the “What is real? What is human?” theme that underpins Philip K Dick’s work.

Good Morning Magicland

This is fun: never underestimate the impact of playability and re-playability. The mechanics are both joyful and workable and framed by a register that everyone understands. It’s one of those games that would either come alive or not and I think in most cases it would.

Flirt Party Aftermath

This has a touch of the Nordic LARPs about it and I think the mechanics suit the theme: I also think that the guidance about what the players write on the index cards needs to be a bit more precise and that the chair-swapping might get a bit confusing. I like the combination of randomisation and solace.

Fatimah’s Busy Day

Beautiful set-up for a game: “anthropomorphic burqa” is a masterclass in domesticating something that has been mistrusted, and perhaps demonised, by certain forms of Western discourse. The phenomenology of what Fatimah sees and hears and chooses is great too and I love the dramatization of the relationship between Fatimah’s inner world and her outer reality. I also admire the way the author has put the larger truths front and centre without being heavy-handed. I did wonder if everyone taking part should get a go at playing Fatimah, as some of the truth of those experiences may be more evident to the person playing Fatimah than to everyone else.


The doginess is strong in this one: I almost feel the game bounded up to me and playfully humped my leg into submission. What’s worse, I liked it. I could play this over and over with the right gaggle of young people; perhaps the same would be true of playing with the appropriate pack of dogs.

Ghost Estate

This had the best language of any of the entries I read: it’s deceptively playful while actually managing to relay quite a bit of the political register and history of the Irish ghost story. People tend to “misunderestimate” the point of combining terror and humour. Phrases like “SPOOKY” and “NOGGIN” and “wheelie based messianism” made me laugh and sufficiently lowered my defences to give me a moment’s pause about the impact of English colonialism on Ireland.

Stop Reading to Lose

This was the most original of the games I read. I love the way it encourages and then complicates the combination of the external and the internal consciousness of the person playing. The decision to leave vast stretches of space between its pieces of text is pretty great too: this uses the physical constraints of the 200 Word RPG Challenge (no formatting, no illustrations, all plain text and so on) to inform its theme and the dislocated-but-intense feelings it wants to create in the player.

Perhaps the distances between the pieces of text might be varied to better reflect the shifts between descriptive and transformative pieces of narration: there are a couple of points where it feels like the game should shift gear but doesn’t. Some element of the player’s “real” environment might be included at the game’s beginning to assist in its claustrophobic intensity – but these are quibbles, really. Using a short form to render the simultaneous vastness of inner and outer space realizes a major characteristic of science fiction.

Call them game-poems, nano-games or what you will but I’m a big fan of short-form roleplaying games and it struck me that this, the third year of the 200 Word RPG Challenge, had fostered a surprising number of entries that felt thematically-complete. Offering those playing the chance to enact some fairly complex concepts and experiences conveys greater emotional impact than mere performance or consumption, and sometimes in the space of a few minutes or half an hour.

Issue 2

Jarry_velo (3)

“Imagine the perplexity of a man outside time and space, who has lost his watch, his measuring rod and his tuning fork.”

Alfred Jarry
Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustrall Pataphysician

Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy is dedicated to the Nørwegian Surreal and includes contributions from:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

Here is the PDF:

Nørwegian Surreal

Creative Agenda

Social media has turned into a game of dodge the 200 Word RPG Challenge entry, so I haven’t been online quite as much. Judging begins on April 26th (Wednesday), so I’ll probably release Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy on Monday or Tuesday. It’s on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal and includes work from the following array of wonderful people:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

City of Eyes
“City of Eyes” by John Rose

Character Sheet Version 6 Image

Paris Below

We had a great time with Trail of Cthulhu: the game will probably be the focus of a future issue of Machineries of Joy.

Our Dreamhounds of Paris campaign ended with two of the player-characters living as debased and cannibalistic ghouls in the catacombs of Paris and with the other being rejected by the Lakhota heritage that had been the centre of his existence. Still, they did manage to defeat Sex Hitler.

Last night was one of those sessions where the inclusion of the Itras By chance cards worked really well: it’s all about timing and punctuation, really, and the guys aced their moments of narrative.

I pitched Night Witches hard – I really want to play that game – but I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. Same with Lovecraftesque: two of us interested; two of us less so. A Red & Pleasant Land is likely to be next, but not for at least a month or so. Real life is being demanding right now.


Space Monkey drew the card “Nemesis!” when Cody (played by Luke) tried to re-establish contact with his Lakhota ancestors. Oops.